The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.
Astronauts in Sunshine ponder their next move. Last month, I caught a preview screening of Sunshine, Danny Boyle's sci-fi psycho thriller flick that opens today. It stomps along a trail laid down by 2001: A Space Odyssey and subsequently trodden by much lesser films: ship goes on an important mission; things go wrong; complex processing machine (carbon- or silicon-based) becomes unhinged; people start dying; lots of teeth-gnashing among moviegoers who want to yell to the actors, "why are you so stupid?" Sunshine's special effects, though, are quite amazing--it really feels hot in that cinematic sunlight. After watching the film, I couldn't help but wonder about the premise. The sun's about to die--but not the way conventional astronomy dictates, in which the sun consumes its supply of hydrogen in its core, swells out as a red giant (and boils away the earth's atmosphere), blows off its outer layer and turns into a white dwarf. But who wants to wait five billion years? Instead, Sunshine posits that Sol is just petering out like a dying charcoal ember, about to turn cold in a matter of decades. So much for Hertzsprung-Russell. Our intrepid heroes, led by Cillian "the Scarecrow" Murphy, have to deliver a bomb to reignite the sun and thereby save our planet. The media notes given out at the preview laughably referred to the delivery of a "nuclear bomb"--fortunately, in the film it is wisely referred to only as a "solar bomb." Unlike Star Trek's Heisenberg compensators (to get around the uncertainty principle) and inertial dampers (to avoid being squashed under warp acceleration), Sunshine makes no attempt to say how the bomb would restart the sun's thermonuclear engine. That's probably for the best, since the film is more about a study in psychology than science-fiction rationality (or rationalization). So I pose this question to all you who know more astrophysics than I: can you envision just how the sun's output might start declining suddenly and precipitously? And how a "solar bomb" might actually work to restart it? The moviemakers do say that the bomb has the mass of Manhattan, but I don't know if that helps or hurts.